‘Rather than saying that the Church has a mission, we affirm that Church ‘is’ mission.’

Sean O’Conaill argues that without official rejection of a mistaken medieval understanding of ‘redemption’ the call to mission is futile.

Those are just two of 110 occurrences of the word mission in the Synthesis Report of the October 2023 16th Synod of Bishops in Rome.

Nowhere is there a convincing manifesto for this mission. With the Irish national synodal synthesis of 2022 saying that ‘we are unsure about how to evangelise in the modern world‘ there is no help with that problem in the forty-one pages of the report.  

So far, the two Irish bishop representatives at the synod – Brendan Leahy of Limerick and Alan McGuckian of Raphoe – are also unhelpful. All Catholic bishops are still imprisoned by a medieval theology of atonement and redemption that no missionary in Ireland today could offer as ‘Good News’.

Originating with St Anselm of Canterbury in the late 11th century this theology proposes that the crucifixion of Jesus was demanded by the Father who sent him – to give ‘satisfaction’ for the ‘dishonour’ caused to the Father by all of our sins – by dying an excruciating death in ‘substitution’ for ourselves.  (CCC 615)

This was not the theology of the early church. The very idea of ‘redemption’ derives from the ‘buying back’ of the freedom of a slave. It was to God the Father that the first Christians attributed their own liberation from fear of the condemnation of their own Roman world. The greatest power of that time had been proven powerless to overwhelm an ever-living truth – by Jesus’ Resurrection.

What exactly do Irish bishops believe: that the Father of the mission we are now to embark upon is bent upon our liberation from the source of all oppression and fear in our present world – or that he is still, as he was for St Anselm in 1098 CE – in the business of calling in debts? 

This theology never even liberated any bishop. No Catholic bishop anywhere in the world is known to have warned his flock about the possibility of clerical sex abuse of children – before victims of that abuse or their families took secular legal action themselves. In December 2009, the Irish Conference of Catholic Bishops named the fear that had paralysed them: of a loss of ‘reputation’ if the truth was known.

An overbearing concern for ‘reputation’ now has a name – status anxiety – given in 2004 by the philosopher Alain de Botton. If our bishops cannot see this same affliction in every aspect of the evils that surround us – from manic consumerism, absurd inequality and climate change to compulsive cosmetic plastic surgery, stalking and mass shootings – and even invasive imperialism in Ukraine and violence in the Holy Land – how are we to convince anyone that Jesus has anything to do with overthrowing the power of evil?  If they cannot see it also in the problem of clericalism, how are we to overcome that? 

Status anxiety is essentially fear of scorn – of being ‘cast out’ – the fear that stalks our dreams. It also drives the pursuit of ‘likes’, admiration, influence, celebrity – and power. This explains the absorption of younger generations with digital media. A globalized personal ‘brand’ can now be created, via a handheld device, even by children. 

Meanwhile, our prisons and psychiatric hospitals and addiction centres struggle to cope with the depression, self-harm, trolling, addiction and criminality that results from the lack of status – even the shame – that the victims of the digital age must feel. 

Is not status anxiety also the source of the fear that attacks would-be whistle-blowers everywhere? Is that not what Jesus was – a whistle-blower against all injustice, who stood firm – without violence – against the merciless judgement of that ancient world? Did he not name his own mission, when he said, just before his own judgement, that he had ‘overcome the world’ – the fear of that judgement? Did he not by his crucifixion and resurrection dissolve the same fear in his earliest followers, who then took up their own crosses – and changed an empire? 

We Catholic Christians urgently need official recognition that the first person of the Trinity, far from being himself trapped in medieval status anxiety, is still bent – with the Son and the Holy Spirit – on rescuing us from that affliction. Until that happens the mission ahead will be ‘mission  on pause’.

(Ed: 25 Nov 23 – the word mistaken was added before medieval understanding of ‘redemption’ the call to mission is futile in the sub-heading.)

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  1. Michael Murphy says:

    Well said. Thanks for such thought provoking insights.

  2. Peadar O'Callaghan says:

    Confessing that I do not have the ability nor wisdom to respond to the deeply felt convictions and concerns expressed in this article by Sean O’Conaill I was nevertheless prompted by it to open ‘Redemptor Hominis’ and read its opening sentence: “The Redeemer of man, Jesus Christ, is the centre of the universe and of history.”

    That the Redeemer is a person (of the Trinity) and not a progressive program rescues me from pessimism and that “The Church wishes to serve this single end: that each person may be able to find Christ, in order that Christ may walk with each person the path of life, with the power of the truth about man and the world that is contained in the mystery of the Incarnation and the Redemption and with the power of the love that is radiated in that truth.”[13}

    Also, one shouldn’t be surprised with the Irish national synodal synthesis of 2022 saying, ‘We are unsure about how to evangelise in the modern world’; it took an Archangel to ‘evangelise’ the Virgin of Nazareth and Angels on Christmas Night and again on Easter Morn to make sense of events over two millennia ago.

    Sean’s reflection and the unfolding horrific events in the Holy Land make me pause on the threshold of Advent to consider the mystery of the child Immanuel – the Redeemer, a marginal Palestinian Jew.

  3. Dermot Quigley says:

    St. Anselm of Canterbury has a refreshingly clear and simple way of looking at Our Lord’s Vicarious Atonement. God is infinitely good in himself and infinitely good to us. Sin is to spit in the face of God, it is to offer him infinite insult. Logically there must be an infinite expiation. We mortals cannot offer this as it can only be achieved by by a Divine Individual. To be capable of representing Humanity an Individual who is Simultaneously God and man is needed.

    Indeed is that not what happens at each Holy Mass: the sacrifice of Calvary, made present as the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ, is offered in expiation for our Sins.

    We must not abandon what St. Anselm taught for the latest frivolous Synodal modernist theories, couched in torturous and ambiguous language!

  4. Sean O’Conaill says:

    #3 “Sin is to spit in the face of God, it is to offer him infinite insult. Logically there must be an infinite expiation.”

    And yet the Father of the prodigal son does not exact from that son further punishment – beyond the punishment that he has inflicted upon himself BY his sins. The father also ‘suffers’ – i.e. puts up with – the indignity that the prodigal has inflicted upon himself. And that parable is Jesus’ theology – which obviously is superior to that of all later theologians, including Anselm.

    So our Father is perfect in love, like Jesus – even if the older brother of the prodigal thinks he is not being logical!

    Just to be clear, I too believe that Jesus by his death and resurrection takes away our sins – but I cannot believe that the father was withholding his love until Jesus made that sacrifice. The Trinity cannot make their home in us if we make any separation in our minds between the Father and the Son.

    And the Trinity are in solidarity also with all who suffer from the sins of the proud, those who try to resolve their status anxiety by looking to others for glory. One of those was Napoleon I, whose battles are now again vividly rendered cinematically, this time by Sir Ridley Scott.

    Once launched upon military glory the temptation for all soldiers is to outdo the military archetypes of the past, Caesar and Alexander. The fear of being considered inferior, the fear of the negative judgement of others, lies at the root of all conflict.

    Jesus, and the Father and the Spirit are, via the cross, in solidarity with all who suffer from the sins of others, including every single one of those who died in the Napoleonic wars, whom Napoleon considered disposable in the service of his own glory.

    The failure of the clerical church to call out the political ambition of the kings and queens of Christendom is the root cause of its collapse. We are still suffering from the theology that allowed those monarchs to claim that God was on their side as they fought one another.

    Dermot, please reconsider your tendency to hurl the slur ‘modernism’ at everything you disagree with, rendering the term essentially meaningless. At this stage the moderator should seriously consider banning its use unless the user can begin by clearly defining its meaning.

    Dermot’s usage would make St Bonaventure (1221-74) a modernist: he did not agree with St Anselm either. The Franciscans never accepted Anselm’s understanding of atonement.

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